Named After a Folk Hero or LOTR Character? You Decide.
Sometimes the least likely of elements provide grounds for uncommon success; case in point: Hammerhand Coffee. Open less than a year, this eclectic, yet simple gathering place at 22 N. Main Street in Liberty, is already on the short list of elite coffee houses of Kansas City.
Hammerhand Coffee’s recipe for success is anything but a secret. At its base is an old Title building and a local guy with a graphic arts degree who’s also a skilled barista. Add a passion for connecting people through quality and excellent coffee. Throw in some technology, homemade syrups, a bit of alcohol and a slate of delectable bites; then top it off with a name that raises eyebrows and after a single visit embeds itself in your memory forever. This is where owner/operator Alex Merrell’s vision meets reality.
Honored, but not surprised that Hammerhand stands out from other coffee shops, Merrell says that was his intent from the day he first began thinking of getting into the business. He wasn’t going for a coffee place that was known just for its coffee. It was always about the overall coffee shop experience.
Merrell gained expertise as a barista at Ultimo Coffee in Philadelphia, a neighborhood favorite that snagged the # 1 spot on the list of America’s Best Coffee Shops four short years ago. Merrell observed what made the place tick and why customers kept coming back. The formula was simplicity mixed with a little bit of love.
It was at Ultimo that Merrell watched how people connected over coffee, how friendships were made, problems were solved and business deals were struck. People’s lives were usually better when they left than when they came in. Or, so it seemed. Merrell liked the thought of being a part of that.
With the arrival of their first child, Merrell, a Lee’s Summit native, and his wife moved to the Kansas City area to be closer to family. The move from Philly only served to heighten his desire to open a coffee shop that could offer a similar experience to the one he left behind, one that would appeal to locals as a third place to be between home and work.
Merrell, along with some business partners and an investor, looked north to Historic Liberty Square for the location of choice for Hammerhand Coffee. Liberty presented itself as an area where the group could invest and observe firsthand the impact of their business on the community, as well its overall performance.
Though enjoying success, Merrell never loses sight of his original goal to distinguish his business through attention to customer service and consistency. “I always tell my staff Hammerhand Coffee is a people company first and a coffee company second. Our customers are our lifeblood. Our primary goal is to make sure everyone who comes in our door leaves happy. Often times with specialty coffee shops, the focus on producing the best coffee possible becomes so central that the customer experience is forgotten.
Enhancing the overall customer experience is one reason we automate much of the coffee making process here at Hammerhand. We have a machine that does our pour overs for us; our espresso machine has programmable scales built into the drain grate which saves us time on measuring. The use of technology ensures product consistency and also frees up my baristas to focus more on customers.”
The use of technology at Hammerhand Coffee also allows more time for employees to focus on the creation of the handcrafted syrups they offer. Flavors varying from mocha and real vanilla to honey orange lavender to the syrup of the month are available to complement drinks both hot and cold.
Up for something a bit riskier? Try the whiskey cortado, one part espresso and one part Kentucky bourbon syrup. Order a signature strawberry or cinnamon brown sugar scratch pop-tart and the experience is complete. Merrell works magic at Hammerhand. “You can order a cappuccino to make you feel like an adult and a pop tart to make you feel like a kid,” he muses.
Consistency and quality are synonymous at this shop. Dedicated to serving single origin coffees, Hammerhead touts Counter Culture and Oddly Correct as their choice of roasters, along with an additional rotating guest blend. Prefer beer or wine? More than just another pretty coffee shop, Hammerhand offers a variety of seasonal brews and an assortment of wines. Tea lovers are not forgotten here, either. A selection of Anna Marie’s Teas also graces the menu.
Things are finally starting to click, so how does it feel? “After working at other shops for years and always wanting to design my own, I finally am able to sit back and observe my work, to see my plan in action,” shares Merrell. “To walk into Hammerhand and see it full of activity, see people surprised by how good the coffee is, and see the shop function the way I hoped it would is truly an amazing feeling.”
However, Merrell, reminisces, the path to success has been anything but smooth. The opening of the shop was delayed by six months when the 130-year-old Bedinger Building, its intended site, collapsed. Adjustments were made and Hammerhand eventually opened at the northwest corner of Liberty Square instead of the southeast corner.
“That was a huge blow to watch all our hard work and planning crumble before us, but we kept at it. We worked farmers markets and pop ups until we worked out a temporary space to open in. Then, just when we opened at our current location, major construction on the roads right in front of our shop began, taking away parking and street access for months. I’m proud to say my staff handled it all very well and have been professionals through everything.”
Most recently, Hammerhand opened the area above the coffee mecca, aptly calling it The Loft. The 1000-square-feet event space, overlooking historic Liberty Square, features hardwood floors, elegant finishings, natural light, and seating for up to 50 guests. The Loft at Hammerhand is perfect for baby and wedding showers, corporate meetings, or a gathering of friends.
Merrell says booking is available by the hour. Package options include discounts on pastries and coffee. He sees it as just one more way to add to the overall Hammerhand Coffee experience.
Long term, Merrell would like to open additional Hammerhand locations throughout the Kansas City metro area, as well as a roaster and training facility. “That’s one area where I see a big gap in the Kansas City coffee industry. Our primary roaster, Counter Culture, invests tons of time and money in offering training and education for their accounts. If we lived close to a CC training facility, my baristas could have total (free) access to everything CC offers. What Counter Culture is for the East Coast, I want to be for the Midwest.”
Right now, though, Merrell is savoring the experience at hand, serving a lot of coffee and making people happy.
“If everyone who enters the shop leaves happy and pleased with their experience, feels this is a place they can be and belong, I will consider the day a success. I’m just taking it one day at a time.”